Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Peek Inside Sermo Form The Outside

Turns out all you need to do in order to find out what's going on in the exclusive, doctors-only (well, and Pfizer) community Sermo is to read AP news.

A while back I received an invitation from Sermo to join the nation's largest online community where OBGYNs share experiences and get paid for participating. Getting paid for sharing my opinions? Yeepee, sign me up!

Not knowing anything about Sermo I went to check out the site (nice) and see if I can figure out what the deal was. Basically, you get to play around with other Ob/Gyns and, in exchange for being provided a [safe] space to interact with colleagues, you allow assorted interested parties (FDA, Wall Street types, pharmas) to peek in, observe you in your natural habitat, and devise some regulations or make money off of your insights.

Next I wanted to see what some of the medbloggers had to say about Sermo. This was around the time of the big security gap controversy so I found a lot of information at Medgadget and Mexico Medical Student. (More here.)

Incidentally, guess who else is trying to do something similar to Sermo (paying experts for their insight)? None other than Reuters, via its Reuters Insight.

Anyway, at the time I decided not to sign up with Sermo mostly because I'm not much of a joiner. I also didn't exactly feel comfortable with the idea of conducting conversations in front of a one-way mirror. [Mind you, I don't have a problem with MDs being paid for their insights, just with the fact that you don't know who you're dealing with. That's why I tend to favor the Reuters model. You know exactly who's picking your brain and you have the option to accept or decline on a case-by-case basis. And, no, I haven't joined Reuters Insight either.] Last, but not least, I recall signing up for something similar a few years ago. There was a community of MDs only (I think it was called Physicians Online, and they used the DEA or license # to verify registration). Initially I did enjoy the community--interesting cases and clinical discussions--but once it was sold (I don't remember the details) it slowly deteriorated and I lost interest.

So, I didn't join Sermo and pretty much forgot all about it. Until today, that is.

While reading the news, I came across an AP story that made me realize that you don't have to be a Sermo member to be privy to member discussions. From the AP article (emphasis mine):

LOS ANGELES - The recent chatter on a popular social networking site dealt with a problem often overlooked in medicine: mistakes in patients' medical charts.

The twist was the patients were doctors irked to discover gaffes in their own records and sloppy note-taking among their fellow physicians.

The frank dialogue on a doctors-only Web forum opened a window into a little discussed topic among physicians who find themselves on the other end of the stethoscope.


Posting under screen names, one physician with multiple sclerosis wrote about having trouble getting an insurance company to pay for a drug after the chart incorrectly noted a diagnosis of "multiple brain tumors." Another who took over a practice had to overhaul the charting system after finding errors in the old records. A third who had had several operations was shocked to see results of physicals and other tests in the medical charts that were never performed.

Hmm, how exactly would a reporter know what the nature of the dialogue is on an exclusive, MDs-only site? It's possible one of the Sermo members contacted the reporter and gave her a detailed account of all the postings, but I rather doubt it. Who has the time and energy to gather and transcribe all that information?

The more likely explanation is that the reporter was allowed a peek (by a member? The people who run the site? Pfizer?) and was able to observe the discussion and choose a topic for her article.

Now, the site members are aware that they're being observed. They also know that they have no say in who's listening in, so no problem there. But then, I have to ask, what is the point of having all those security features to begin with when the press has [possibly] unrestricted access to the site?



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